He might be only 35, but with Dubai’s Al Barari development already under his belt, Mohammed Zaal has turned his sights to small-scale development, with the not-so-small ambition of changing the way we live and work in the UAE…

Mohammed Zaal’s office is a design dream. Overlooking The Opus by the late, great Zaha Hadid, and fittingly situated in what Lonely Planet recently named one of the world’s ten coolest neighbourhoods, Business Bay, it’s a concrete floored, copper-lighted, entirely Instagrammable spot that acts as a statement of intent for the young developer.

Zaal spent 12 years working with his family on the development of Dubai’s acclaimed Al Barari. But two years ago, he decided to go it alone, citing an ambition to develop for his own generation – one that he says has, until now, been neglected by Dubai’s real estate industry. “I’m a proud Emirati, but I see so much I don’t like in the way things have been going in the real estate development market. I think it’s the only area I see in Dubai that is lacking, and there is so much more potential in it. I see what’s going on in other industries, how everything is constantly growing and evolving, becoming more interesting and more creative. But real estate hasn’t kept up with that. I’m getting emails every day about property, about deals, saying buy before a certain time and, I think, devaluing property in general. People associate real estate developers in Dubai with being unethical, with promising one thing and delivering another. The associations are so negative. So, I really wanted to focus my time and efforts on trying to do things differently, and that’s why I founded Koa.”

His first project, Canvas, is in itself a groundbreaker, in that it has been created within the shell of a previously abandoned building. “It’s a building that was left derelict for four years, that had been seized by the courts. It was full of dust, just sitting there, and I thought it would be a refreshing way to start this new company, by upcycling something rather than just taking the standard Dubai approach of believing that if it’s even a year old you might as well demolish it and build something new. I thought we could give it back life.”

The industry reacted with bafflement. “Everyone I dealt with, from architects and engineers to contractors and the authorities, said I was crazy and that I should knock the building down. It would be cheaper, it would be faster, it would be this or that. And it’s a struggle to change people’s views about these things, but I’m very happy to see that things are starting to shift. Just recently we saw a request to the government to create some sort of listing system for older buildings in the city. And that’s coming from the younger generation. They see buildings that were built in the 1970s and see that they have real architectural value, that they have emotions and memories attached. There are hospitals, schools and buildings that I used to see as a child and that could potentially be ripped down at any point as things stand because there is no listing process in place. I find that amazing.”

Using the shell as the starting point of the development, Zaal has created less than 100 apartments, sharing 42 layouts, offering a uniqueness of space that is rare in the Dubai market. The building itself sits on a huge plot of 250,000 square foot, much of which has been maintained as garden space with an indigenous planting scheme created by Zaal’s sister, the award-winning landscape designer Kamelia Zaal. In addition, Koa has also created a host of community spaces, with three swimming pools, a gym, a hammam, a sauna, spa facilities and a hair salon, F&B facilities, a daycare centre (he laughingly admits that his outlook on development has changed since he became a father) and paddle tennis courts, as well as a boutique hotel.

Canvas, named to represent a new beginning, also boasts a co-working space aimed at supporting Dubai’s creative community. Opening in January, it will host around 15 events a month for its members, ranging from book launches and film screenings to debates and seminars. Residents of Canvas will automatically be considered members of the space, while additional members are allowed in via an application process. “I think what we’re trying to ensure is that we don’t have a community that is purely fashion, or purely art. We want to encourage a wide range of talents, to ensure that we have members who are inspiring and will contribute to society here in their own way, whether that’s through art or film or charity work. I feel that we have a lot of unnurtured design talent here in this city. It’s underground right now, and the government and businesses need to support it. You see beautiful places like AlSerkal, what the government has done with d3, and it’s all a great start. But we need more.

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“You need to be among creative people to be inspired I think, to create. And we want to put these people in the same room as each other, allow talented people to interact, to support each other and build off each other’s energy. And of course, there are business to business networking opportunities within a co-working space too, and people within the community who can help when you’re trying to get something new off the ground. So I’m hoping that we’ll see product innovations that will emerge from Canvas.”

With Dubai Design Week gaining international acclaim, Dubai’s creative sector is certainly a growing one, but while Zaal admits that targeting those involved through real estate is a bold move, he’s determined that there’s an untapped market of young, middle-income expats who will put down roots here if offered the right investment. “What I want to do is give the younger generation something suitable for them. Or people who value their individuality and don’t want to live in cookie cutter developments. Unfortunately, until now there have been so many limitations for expats and non-nationals who want to buy property here. You’re forced into certain areas, and within those areas you’ll probably choose a plot, house number 55 or house number 155 out of 300 and they’re all exactly the same. But the mindset of Dubai has changed now. It’s no longer a place for transient workers to spend a couple of years and then leave. Now, you have people who’ve been here for ten or 15 years, my wife has been here for 23 years, and this is home. Those people want to put down roots, they want to really call this home. The real estate market has been slow to respond to that need. My product is not for everyone, but it is for a huge number of people here who have been neglected by the industry until this point. And I’m really excited. I love my country and I want to show that things here can be done a bit differently, that you can do this and still make money.

“Once people start realising that there’s a different way to do things, that projects like this sell, the developers who are coming up with 100-year payment plans and making shoe box apartments will see that they have to change. I feel it changing. And I want to be at the head of that change.”

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